I’m going to open with the best piece of data from the 24 Hour Digital Detox. My screen time went down from a whopping ten hours per day to zero, instantly.
Misinterpretation of data aside, this was one of the most liberating, genuinely productive things I’ve done in years and surprisingly I felt more productive by doing less. Honestly, I was prepared for this to be excruciating. To reach a level of boredom that hasn’t been achieved since double History every Friday afternoon in Year 10 (Sorry Ms.Rooney). I even went and got a book back that I hadn’t read in years incase I would blitz through so many in one day I would be at a loss for things to do. Here’s what actually happened.
I turned everything off 2 hours ahead of my midnight start time. I read a physical book and got down to sleep by 11pm. It was that pre-diet excitement. I woke up at midnight. The alarm clock I had replaced my phone with had a default alarm set for midnight (why?!). Off to a rocky start. I slept like absolute shit. I’m a solid sleeper usually but I was too in the game. It was unsettling to be detached.
Friday morning – the actual start
This was the first challenge, not sleeping in. Thanks to lockdown I’ve been afforded a plentiful supply of time and ‘freedom’ (within the confines of my own home). I was pretty tired and could have done with another hour of snooze BUT in the interest of science I’d decided that I must stick to my usual sleeping routine. I lay there briefly, wondering how I was going to put the time in and held mild resentment against past Conor.
Got up and went for a walk. Immediately felt much better as the fresh air filled my lungs and the blood started flowing. I forgot about my sub-standard sleep and the idea of ‘filling time’. I felt glad that a morning walk had become part of my daily routine. It took some time to fully declutter my mind and I ended up jumping in a puddle for a bit then wondering what the big cat next door was staring at. Such a big cat. Turns out the main selling point of my shoes wasn’t their resistance to water. Was I subconsciously tying to kill time or was I more curious?
Usually I journal on computer. I found an old notebook I used to use. When I say ‘use’, there’s doddles on 3 pages, done on long distance flights thinking it would be the start of something special, the start of my get rich quick scheme. Turns out my handwriting hasn’t improved but I did forgot how much I loved writing on paper! It’s finite, there’s no spell check and it has character (horrific handwriting). I start to ramble and shred through 5 pages, my hand gets sore. I’m daydreaming now, idea’s are rearing their heads and I feel emotional. I can’t really recall being ’emotional’ about anything in months. I’m frustrated at how different this day feels already but remember that’s the whole point. I’m frustrated with wasted time. For someone who ‘lives so much in the present’, this is an eye opener.
Lesson 1 – Engagement.
I am engaged in what I’m doing and happy to spend time exploring it. There’s no rush to get back to watching x or checking what’s happening on y. There is, what feels like, endless time. How often does quickly checking a message turn into 20 minutes of mindless scrolling?
Lesson 2 – Calm.
I feel much calmer. It helps that it’s still early and no-one is awake but still, this feels different. Maybe it’s not about being ‘calm’ but about being used to that feeling of subtle unsettledness. Maybe it’s that constant urge to know what’s happening out there.
I start reading Richard Kochs “80/20 Principle” I bought this 3 years ago in Portland and never got past the introduction. I’m engaged, briefly, I stop after 6 pages. It’s become an instinctual behaviour to reach for where my phone would usually sit. There was no notification, there wasn’t even a phone. I was simply attempting to reward my monkey brain with an easy dopamine hit for a solid 6 pages of hard work.
Lesson 3 – Your phone is the elephant in the room.
It might be face down on the counter or in your pocket, but you know it’s there. The only way you’re able to measure its impact is by removing it completely and seeing how you react.
Lesson 4- Forced introspection.
If there’s anything you’re distracting yourself from, this will bring it to the surface. If you’ve ever meditated you’ll know how your brain reacts to complete silence, it’s chaos. I sit and come to terms with a recent breakup, it feels confronting and I want to distract myself. It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while but I really start to work on it. I come to appreciate the good times instead of fuelling my self righteousness with her mistakes. I come to peace with what I can control.
This is great. I hear notification dings go off in different rooms of the house and feel an air of superiority. It’s like when you’re designated driver and watch friends drinking, knowing how good you’ll feel tomorrow when they’re hungover. When deep down you’re thinking about how much fun they’re having now.
Time’s going much quicker than I expected. It’s 12pm and I’m 60 pages deep in this book. 20% of my time is spent doing activities that produce 80% of the benefits? Wow, this book is good. I start to think of all the other inefficient ways I use my time. Do I spend 80% of my time doing nothing on my phone?
It’s at this stage of the day I realise I’m not going to go off grid completely any time soon, technology can be useful. I do start to think of ways in which I can develop a framework where I have periods of digital dieting. Similar to alcohol or gambling, just because they’re easily abused doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad when used responsibly. They’re commonly abused though and many people struggle to practice responsible behaviour. Those who know that they abuse substances are in a position to acknowledge that they need help. It’s those of us that think our usage isn’t a problem that are in real difficulty. Complete denial.
Lesson 5 – Life is about removing, not adding.
We think in terms of more. Doing more, earning more, having more, achieving more. We become hoarders of more. At what point is more enough? We should be doing less but doing it better. We should own less but what we have be better quality.
I find an old shoebox that I’ve now repurposed as ‘device dump box’. I put everything in there and put it under my bed. This could become a thing. It’s now 2pm and I start to feel like time is running out, I get unsettled that boredom has yet to hit. I have lunch and start noodling on guitar. For the first time in months I get truly lost in what I’m playing, I’ve fleshed out the bones of a song. This is cool, remember writings songs? I feel 17 again, it dawns on me how distraction has impacted my creativity, I dwell once more in the thought of how much time has been ‘wasted’. I reach for my phone. This is frustrating. I’m 31 and wanting to spend time on a phone scrolling through the lives of other people uploading videos and photos that scream “Validate me, tell me i’m living a life that is enviable, tell me i’m doing it right!”. I’m 31 and seeking that validation too.
I want to google the weather forecast for the next hour, it looks pretty dreary outside, I decide to bring a coat (am I a meteorologist now?). I walk with Aneeqe, we get a coffee (my debit card still works!), we talk life and do some mundane food shopping. He instinctively goes to show me a video, instead he describes the key parts of what happened, we both save 5 minutes, we keep talking.
Aaron has given me the equipment to start a ghetto backyard gym. I put together a make shift squat rack from two bins and squat in the rain. I want to take a picture to send to him, this is hilarious. There’s no music. You don’t notice the music when you’re squatting but it adds to the atmosphere around it. I miss music. I had charged an old iPod that I was intending on using but it felt wrong to make an exception for one digital device (I even avoided the microwave). Aneeqe joins me and plays music from his phone but i’m not in control. It’s melds into the background fairly quickly. I judge him for using his phone, this doesn’t feel good, he didn’t agree to a digital detox, maybe i’m jealous. I feel like a protestor outside an abortion clinic.
I shower and we have some Garam Masala tea. We sit in front of what is usually 60 inches of pure visual entertainment. Now just a giant black rectangle, Mark Rothko would be impressed. More dings go off, I start to wonder if there’s an emergency with my family and I’m needed. I’m 10,000 miles away, I couldn’t do much but I would know. I can taste the tea, so many flavours going on, I look at the tea, I smell it. It’s 8pm on a Friday evening. It helps that pubs are closed, at least I’m not missing that, but what would I be missing if I was? Potential.
Lesson 6 – FOMO
The fear of missing out is not about what we’re actually missing out on but what we’re potentially missing out on. “I COULD be scuba diving with sharks but instead I’m at work!”. We love the idea of what we’re capable of over what we are doing.
I often hit a brick wall in the evening, get tired of pretending I’m being productive and stick on a movie. I thought I would’ve slipped in a nap to kill time but it hasn’t happened. I want to go back and finish writing the song. Not a feeling of “I have to”, but “I want to”. If I had the option of watching TV I would’ve taken the path of least resistance but I don’t. My fingertips are blistered, it’s been a while since I’ve played acoustic guitar for this long. I think about recording this in a few days. This is great.
I go back to reading, I’m starting to feel like I should be tired, actually I AM tired. I lie in bed and think “This has been the most productive day I’ve had in maybe a year.” I didn’t clean the house or make any money but I took stock of what really mattered to me. I realised I gain nothing from checking notifications and it prevents me from giving things my full focus.
I try to sleep but the house is awake. My brain is overstimulated anyway. I feel like I could do so much more. I try to finish the book, I’m 150 pages in. Usually it takes weeks for me to finish a book, struggling to tie pieces together I’ve started days before. Now I can apply the Pareto principle to my life, could I have googled this?
It’s midnight, I can turn my phone back on. I don’t. Now there’s a fear of turning it back on, what am I walking back into? I go to sleep.
The morning after
I wake up early, unsettled sleep again. My brain isn’t used to so much positive stimulation, where are the memes? I turn my phone on. There were only two things of actual interest to me. A message from my Dad about the Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang and my friend Sarah asking did I want to do a stretching session (which would have been highly beneficial for my podgy inflexible shell). The rest was just noise.
I turn my phone off again.